LNP/LancasterOnline. January 29, 2023.
Editorial: Pennsylvanians deserve better from the state House of Representatives
Imagine this happening at your workplace: Your managers cannot figure out what tasks ought to take priority, and what the workplace rules ought to be, so they announce that no official action will occur for a month. Never fear, though: Everyone still gets paid.
Actually, this would never happen at your workplace. Politicians like to boast about how much real-world experience they’ll bring to elective office, but they seem to forget it all once they’re voted in.
So, instead of legislating, the Pennsylvania House is currently playing a high-stakes game of freeze tag. The Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on their working rules, and the two sides don’t trust each other, so House Speaker Mark Rozzi literally locked the House chamber, perhaps to keep the Republicans from staging another late-night photo op like they did earlier this month.
Rozzi said the chamber will meet again after Feb. 27, after three Feb. 7 Allegheny County special elections that Democrats are expected to win — which would, as Spotlight PA reported, “cement the party’s first majority in 12 years.”
In the meantime, the Pennsylvania Legislature is in recess — a word that’s never seemed more apt, given the childish bickering that’s been going on among Democrats and Republicans in the state House.
And the issues that Pennsylvanians care about — property tax reform, education, the environment, the state of democracy, the state economy — remain on the back burner.
Push for amendments
Holding a narrow — and likely temporary — majority, state House Republicans seemed to enter the new legislative session with one goal in mind. And that was to push through — as quickly as possible — proposed constitutional amendments in time to get those amendments on the May municipal primary ballot, when fewer Pennsylvanians are expected to vote.
Those amendments would impose stricter voter ID requirements and enable the Legislature to overrule the governor on environmental and business regulations.
Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat who won the House speakership with the support of both Republicans and Democrats, is aiming to get a worthier constitutional amendment passed — one that’s been in the works for years. Unfortunately, Republicans have sought to bundle it with the other proposed constitutional amendments.
The amendment prioritized by Rozzi would create a two-year window during which victims of childhood sexual abuse — who have aged out of the statute of limitations — could sue their abusers, and those who enabled their abuse, in civil court. (Rozzi was sexually assaulted by a Roman Catholic priest when he was 13.)
Rozzi vowed not to consider any legislation until the General Assembly agreed to pass the litigation window for childhood sexual abuse survivors.
That didn’t happen. So Rozzi recessed the House — in spite of objections from Republicans — and now is on a statewide “listening” tour to get input about the state House from voters and good-government groups.
What Pennsylvanians deserve
We have some input: Lawmakers, stop the petty, partisan wrangling and find some common ground. Place the interests of your constituents before your party’s. And if you’re proposing to change the commonwealth’s constitution, do it transparently and carefully, and during a November general election, when turnout is highest. Accept the reality that Pennsylvanians voted for a narrowly divided state House and seek compromise.
Last week, House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler, the previous House speaker, asserted that the Legislature needs to change the laws governing public school property tax increases. Cutler was motivated by an audit that showed that 12 districts — including the School District of Lancaster, Penn Manor and Hempfield — got state approval to vote on tax hikes higher than the wage inflation rate, even while holding significant funding reserves.
Cutler, of Drumore Township, said this in a statement Wednesday: “The hard-working families of Pennsylvania, who are paying extra money to these school districts when they could have reinvested that money into their households, deserve better.”
What Pennsylvanians deserve is a Legislature that tackles property tax and school funding reform in a comprehensive and bipartisan way, so that school districts consistently get equitable state funding, eliminating the need for them to raise real estate taxes that unfairly burden senior citizens on fixed incomes.
They deserve a Legislature that — instead of seeking to expand its power over regulations — ensures that Pennsylvanians, as promised in the state constitution, maintain the “right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.”
They deserve a Legislature that acts to protect democracy and voter access. Rushing constitutional amendments onto the ballots of a low-turnout municipal primary election is not protecting democracy. It’s seeking to subvert it.
They deserve a Legislature that works to ensure that the Pennsylvania economy remains strong and businesses continue to thrive, because workers see the commonwealth as a place where diverse families can flourish and children can get excellent public educations that prepare them for their futures.
In a recent news release, House Speaker Rozzi acknowledged that “Harrisburg is broken.”
We could have told him this.
Good-government advocates want the state House to adopt rules that would ensure that bills with bipartisan support will get floor votes, instead of being blocked by partisan committee chairs. We have championed such rule reform.
Rozzi chose three Republican and three Democratic House members to form a work group aiming at “breaking the partisan gridlock” and hammering out rules that would enable both parties to work together on the abuse survivor amendment.
Caruso of Spotlight PA tweeted Thursday that the Democratic members of Rozzi’s rules group had said they wanted to hear from the public before they agreed to rules. But none of the three Democrats showed up to Rozzi’s listening session Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.
As longtime observers of the goings-on in Harrisburg, we find none of this surprising. But we are nevertheless saddened because we want state government to work for the betterment of Pennsylvanians.
We are sad, too, for the adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse who once again were pulled into the wake of political chaos, hoping for the chance to finally seek justice, only to be left disappointed.
One such survivor is Cathleen Palm, founder of The Center for Children’s Justice, an independent nonprofit dedicated to protecting Pennsylvania’s children.
Speaking of the state Legislature to Spotlight PA, Palm said, “The bottom line is the dysfunction is bipartisan and bicameral.”
Indeed it is. But we don’t have to be resigned to this. We can and ought to demand better.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. January 30, 2023.
Editorial: Stepping up on ending capital punishment
Pennsylvania’s costly, ineffective and immoral death-penalty statute remains active, even though the state hasn’t executed anyone since 1999. With more than 100 prisoners on death row, one of the nation’s largest, the statute’s exorbitant legal costs still mount, as local prosecutors continue to try people under the death penalty, and prisoners continue to appeal convictions.
From 1978 to 2018, Pennsylvania taxpayers spent more than $1 billion on the death penalty, reported former Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale. Roughly half of that money was spent on prisoners who were later resentenced to mandatory life. Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, Pennsylvania has sentenced more than 400 people to death, but executed only three. Ten more death row prisoners in Pennsylvania were exonerated.
Newly elected Gov. Josh Shapiro, who has stated he now opposes the death penalty, can help make Pennsylvania the 24th state to abolish this imprudent, antiquated law. By declaring he won’t sign death warrants, he has already, in effect, continued the moratorium on executions that former Gov. Tom Wolf declared in 2015. Up to now, however, his low-profile remarks on the death penalty have not influenced the debate on capital punishment among the people or in the General Assembly.
To give the issue political salience and push legislators to act, Mr. Shapiro ought to make strong and focused public statements that will bolster support for bills in the state House and Senate that would abolish the death penalty statute. The governor can’t introduce those bills but he can, by lobbying legislators and using his bully pulpit, contribute mightily to their passage. Virginia abolished capital punishment in 2021, and it wouldn’t have happened without the forceful support of Gov. Ralph Northam.
Opposing the death penalty shouldn’t be difficult. Among other things, it is costly and risks executing the innocent. Nationwide, roughly 190 death row prisoners have been exonerated. A University of Michigan Law School study estimated that more than 4% — or one in 25 — of all death row defendants were wrongfully convicted.
Moreover, not a shred of evidence shows capital punishment deters violent crime; death penalty states generally have higher violent crime rates. More than half of those on Pennsylvania’s death row are Black, even though African Americans make up only 12% of the state’s population.
The death penalty has made the United States a moral outlier among nations. Executing people who no longer threaten society is little more than government-sponsored murder. It is not a question of who deserves to die — a question no one can answer: The real question is whether the state has the right to become an executioner.
Mr. Shapiro knows it does not. Now he must act. Nothing would elevate his legacy as Pennsylvania’s 48th governor more than helping to rid the state of this costly and ineffective moral stain.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. January 29, 2023.
Editorial: The ticking clocks of Pennsylvania’s poor bridges
For the people on the Fern Hollow Bridge on Jan. 28, 2022, the unthinkable happened in a heartbeat.
There was a banging sound. There was confusion. Was it a crash? There was a drop. One moment, it was a normal Friday morning, driving in the snowy January weather. The next, a 50-year-old bridge that barely seemed like a bridge broke free and plunged into the ravine below.
The ensuing year has been a study in what can happen over time.
It took a remarkably short time to fund a new bridge with $25.4 million of Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act money. It is amazing how fast that can happen when the president was already coming to town the day of the collapse to tout his infrastructure plan.
It took 11 months from the collapse for traffic to be driving through Frick Park over the new span. It took much less time to construct it.
What hasn’t happened is a final result of the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the cause of the failure. On Friday, an update was released with more than 2,000 pages of information. Not surprising, as NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy said in May that the incident would be “put … under a microscope.”
NTSB investigations, the kind of deep dives that come after plane crashes, train derailments and major collisions on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, often take two years or more. They are equal parts engineering crime scene and larger-than-life jigsaw puzzle.
But the timeline that matters is not the one that started when the bridge fell. It’s the one you get working backward from that moment, because despite how it seemed at 6:40 a.m. on that cold morning a year ago, it was not something that happened all at once.
There were years of inspections that showed the bridge’s deterioration. Since 2011, it was rated as poor. Its maximum weight limit was reduced. Just months before the bridge fell, concerns were raised. Yet no one ever saw the collapse bearing down on Fern Hollow with inexorable slowness.
Why? Because it isn’t uncommon. Pennsylvania has 23,202 bridges, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Of those, 3,112 are rated poor. That’s 13% of the state’s roads that travel over water, train tracks, other roads or ravines like Fern Hollow.
Those poor bridges are everywhere; 122 are in Allegheny County and 100 are in Westmoreland County.
All of them are ticking clocks. Could one of them be the next sudden catastrophe that just happens to have a long paper trail of warnings about necessary maintenance and repair?
Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice. January 31, 2023.
Editorial: Lawmakers need grip, not grope
Perhaps because the state Legislature traditionally has been an overwhelmingly male bastion, it has an equally long history of failing to take seriously claims of sexual harassment.
In recent years, lawmakers have allowed hundreds of thousands of dollars to be used to settle harassment complaints that legislative staffers have brought against legislators. While claiming to have a zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment, Republican lawmakers allowed one of their number, Nick Miccarelli of Delaware County, to complete his 10th year in office to vest in his publicly funded pension — after Republican Rep. Tarah Toohil of Luzerne County obtained a restraining order against him.
The Toohil case prompted the House to adopt a rule in 2019 banning “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”
It’s remarkable that such instruction is necessary. But, sadly yet predictably, it apparently doesn’t go far enough.
Friday in Philadelphia, during a public “listening tour” meeting conducted by Democratic House Speaker Mark Rozzi of Berks County, a lobbyist said she had been sexually harassed by a member of the Legislature.
Andi Perez, who represents more than 10,000 state employees covered by the Service Employees International Union, said she was discussing legislation outside the state Capitol with a male lawmaker who “decided to caress my leg while I was wearing a skirt all the while telling me he was impressed by my passion and knowledge of the issues we were discussing.”
At the meeting, she did not identify the legislator, his party or whether he was a representative or senator. But she said that when she attempted to file a complaint with the state House Ethics Committee, she was told that the ban on sexual harassment applied only to legislative employees.
Ideally, Perez will identify the alleged harasser through some other venue.
Meanwhile, even though it should not be necessary for alleged professionals whom taxpayers pay base salaries of more than $100,000 a year, both legislative houses should adopt rules spelling out that sexual harassment is inappropriate in all circumstances. And to ensure compliance, they should make pensions dependent on it.